Exeter City suffered their heaviest league defeat in 65 years at the hands of table-topping Bolton Wanderers.
Despite a positive start for Gary Caldwell's side in the first half an hour, Bolton scored seven without response. Jack Iredale headed Bolton ahead at the back-post before Victor Adeboyejo doubled their lead before the half-time break. Paris Maghoma scored Bolton's third, Dion Charles scored a brace for five, Kyle Dempsey scored the sixth and Dan Nlundulu put the nail in the coffin in added time for seven.
Looking to build on the momentum from Tuesday's win at Swindon, City would have to overcome tough competition: Bolton, who are on a seven-game winning streak in all competitions, sit third in the league one table – 17 places above City with twice as many points.
Managing this game’s underdogs, Caldwell named an unexpected lineup: Cheick Diabate, who is traditionally a centre back, started this game as a lone striker. Having impressed in training, Diabate came on up top in the second half of City’s cup win at Swindon on Tuesday night and showed glimpses of what Caldwell had seen in training. City’s manager also named five other changes: Vil Sinisalo came back into the starting XI, having recently made his international debut in the EURO 2024 qualifiers; Zak Jules, Ryan Trevitt and Jack Aitchison were rotated in; whilst Ilmari Niskanen made his first start since returning from injury.
City kicked off, finding Sinisalo who quickly distributed to Diabate up top: facing off against Bolton’s sizeable number five, Ricardo Almeida Santos, Diabate would have a physical battle to contend with in the upcoming 90 minutes. Down at the other end, Bolton looked the most threatening team in the opening stages, playing the ball across City’s goal on two separate occasions – both of which would have caused Sinisalo serious problems had a Bolton player been on the end of them.
Despite these early scares, City stayed level as they grew into the game, one promising move saw the ball played long to the feet of Diabate who weighted the ball brilliantly into the path of Aitchison who had the pace to get there first but just lacked the ball to return the favour to Diabate. As City grew in confidence, Bolton threatened to counter, only to be denied by quick-thinking City players who were doing well to read and manage the flow of the game, intercepting disguised passes and clearing the ball extra-out of play to allow men to get back behind the ball. As City were able to ensure they had a more solid backline, Bolton were forced to look for more audacious passes, often being overhit for a City goal-kick.
Bolton supporters became frustrated as the afternoon looked to be more difficult than they had expected, putting pressure on their players and seemingly firing up the City players as each of their attacks began to look more threatening than the last – at the 30-minute mark, either side could take it. Unfortunately, it was Bolton who broke the deadlock. Following a spell of Bolton possession, Charles lofted the ball towards the back-post and Iredale was the first to it – heading Bolton into the lead. From that moment on, it was all Bolton for the remainder of the first half. Pierce Sweeney beat his man for pace at the back but then under pressure, misplaced his pass as the ball went out for a corner. Bolton then took this corner short and following some intricate passing, played the ball across the face of goal for Adeboyejo to double the hosts’ lead. City went into the break having conceded two goals without response. Despite this, the scoreline was not reflective of their first half performance.
Caldwell named one substitution at the half-time break; Jules was replaced by Dion Rankine who was making his comeback from injury, although you wouldn’t have guessed it as he looked to be one of City’s brightest players as her came on, causing problems for Bolton’s left-back.
City quickly found themselves three behind. A Bolton press exposed City’s backline as they gained possession high up the pitch, stealing the ball from Alex Hartridge. With City unable to recover, Maghoma was left unmarked at the back-post and added to Bolton’s lead. The onslaught did not end there, some more intricate passes around the City area left Charles able to slot in Bolton’s fourth before City could regroup after the third.
In a bid to close the floodgates and get something from this game, Caldwell made a triple change, bringing on Vincent Harper, Yanic Wildschut and Kyle Taylor. Although those changes proved to be too little too late as Bolton added their fifth of the evening. Charles was the first man to pick up on a strong save from Sinisalo, smashing in Bolton’s fifth and his second of the evening.
The atmosphere was very different now. As it stood, Bolton were top of the league and the home fans were enjoying it – the Toughsheet Community Stadium was hosting a party, and the travelling supporters were not invited. The beginning of the game was providing hope for the Grecians: in the opening 30 minutes, they were in the game and looked as though they could take points, however; once Bolton scored their first goal, the tides turned, the floodgates opened and City were struggling to stay afloat. Bolton scored their sixth of the evening from a set-piece – the ball was lofted in and a white shirt was the first to the first, second, and third ball – the final of which left Dempsey able to head in and add to City’s painful evening in the north.
The fourth official indicated six added minutes, to a roar from the home crowd. A bigger roar came two minutes later as Nlundulu added his name to the score sheet for Bolton’s final goal of the evening.
City have an opportunity to pick up their form at 19.45 on Tuesday 28th November as they face Shrewsbury at St James Park.
Exeter City: Sinisalo, Hartridge, Sweeney, Aimson, Jules (Rankine 46'), Trevitt, Carroll (Taylor 64'), Niskanen (Harper 64'), Aitchison, Kite, Diabate (Wildschut 64').
Unused subs: Macdonald (GK), Cole, Scott.
Bolton Wanderers: Baxter (GK), Dacres-Cogley, Jones, Almeida Santos, Toal, Iredale, Thomason, Sheehan, Maghoma, Adeboyejo, Charles.
Subs: Forrester, Morley, Mendes Gomes, Dempsey, Bodvarsson, Nlundulu, Jerome.
Referee: Scott Simpson.